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The one that got away: what to expect from Claire Coutinho

The former children's minister is now energy secretary. How do childcare insiders rate her?

By Megan Kenyon

In its current incarnation, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) has been operating for just over six months. Yet, the department is already on its second secretary of state.

As Grant Shapps was whisked away on Thursday morning (31 August) to take charge of the Ministry of Defence, it was announced that the children’s minister, Claire Coutinho, would be taking up the energy brief, leaving the Department for Education (DfE) after less than a year in the role.

Yesterday’s mini-reshuffle was the epitome of revolving-door politics. Shapps has been in five different cabinet roles in the past 12 months. And Coutinho’s successor, David Johnston, is the tenth children’s minister in a decade. This rotation of ministers has not gone down well with the childcare sector, representatives of which have been keen to relay their gripes over the government’s inconsistency.

Coutinho, who is the MP for East Surrey, is the first of the 2019 parliamentary intake to reach the cabinet table. Despite her ministerial inexperience, she is thought of by the childcare sector as a safe pair of hands. She is described as “engaged” by childcare experts; a minister who “understood the issues” and her brief.

Her career neatly mirrors the path taken by the Prime Minister. Like Rishi Sunak, she went from an Oxford college to a career in finance: joining the investment bank Merrill Lynch after graduating from Exeter College with a degree in maths and philosophy.

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As a former aide to Sunak while he was chief secretary to the Treasury in 2019-20, she has been touted as a potential chancellor should the Conservatives hang on to power after the next election. Coutinho, a keen Brexiteer, won her seat from the Conservative-turned-Lib Dem MP, Sam Gyimah. She has previously said she swapped finance for politics to see Brexit through “from the inside”. Coutinho moved to the DfE in October 2022 after an even shorter time as disabilities minister in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) during the short-lived Truss government.

[See also: The new shadow environment secretary faces a “key test for Labour”]

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance says that, as a minister, Coutinho “got it” and was “always pleasant to work with”. But he is deeply critical of the turnover of childcare ministers. “We’ve had no continuity, at a time when the government argues it’s got the biggest investment in childcare,” Leitch says.  

Another childcare insider says that given Coutinho’s positive engagement with the issues “there was hope she would be the one who stayed” after years of churn.

Nonetheless, a heavy brief awaits Coutinho as she swaps nurseries for net zero. The new energy secretary, who is also a member of the Conservative Environment Network, lauded the UK’s offshore wind network in her maiden speech to parliament in January 2020, and enthusiastically commended the “ambitious Environment Bill”. She has mentioned climate change just three times in the House of Commons since her election in 2019. She has never explicitly spoken about net zero, and her discussion of energy security is peppered across several debates on the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis.

As the energy and climate experts point out, however, Coutinho won’t have much time to get to know her department. Among other things, the Energy Secretary has a heated debate over the UK’s oil and gas licences, and the perpetual challenge of improving the energy efficiency of the country’s housing stock, to deal with. She must also navigate a safe passage through parliament for the ongoing Energy Bill before an election is called.

Chris Venables, deputy director of politics and partnership at the Green Alliance think tank, says the challenges for the incoming Energy Secretary are “huge”. He adds that “fortunately the solutions are cheap and simple”, noting accelerating the drive to retrofit housing stock or “unblock onshore wind developments” as two examples of ways to meet net zero goals, bring down household energy bills, and boost energy security.

Ed Matthew, head of campaigns at the environmental think tank E3G, agrees. “If she understands that, there is hope,” he says. But, he warns, if she does not, the government risks losing the support of businesses, investors and members of the public that are “united behind ambitious climate action”.

[See also: What has the energy price cap got to do with the climate?]

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